Generals & Generalship: On Quality Military Leadership

The debate is about the steady deterioration that has take place in the quality of our military leadership especially at the apex and critical levels of Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals where it should be the best possible.


Generals & Generalship: On Quality Military Leadership

Background & Trigger

A well-intentioned recent article (dated 5 June 2019) by senior Veteran Lieutenant General PR Shankar (Retd) titled ‘Generally on Generals’ has been appreciated by many Veterans as most of the points highlighted by the author are true. However, there is also a counterview to the article, not so much against the points raised and articulated, but mainly against the author and the very idea/intention/ ethos of writing the article (as a retired General).

It is often seen that several writers, readers, or respondents question the very purpose of some Veterans writing articles on multifarious issues concerning the Armed Forces and national security. The argument or justification is not against the points raised and articulated and elaborated in the article but mainly against the fact that the author is a retired officer and a Veteran.

In case the author is a ‘General’, the opposition is more to his writing as a retired General and not the points written by him. The argument/points mostly raised against the unfortunate/targeted ‘General’ is that he should have raised the points in the article/s while he was in service and not post retirement!

I honestly feel that we Veterans, especially our learned, experienced and highly articulate high ranking Generals/Admirals/Air Marshals, must often write their views on any and all multifarious issues concerning the wellbeing of our armed forces and the nation. Their articles and learned views collectively help, enable, and facilitate projection of multifarious learned/experienced views leading to a clear conclusion and even consensus on most subjects.

These collective views of Veterans often project to the serving fraternity and the political hierarchy, including the bureaucracy, all the rich wealth of knowledge, expertise, experience and recommendations that the Veterans (especially Generals) make to all concerned through their excellent analysis and articulation. It needs to be appreciated that while in service we are bound by several pulls, pressures, restraints due to binding rules and regulations besides constraints of time and favourable inclination.

However, post retirement all the direct and indirect embargoes are lifted, and the Veteran (now out of uniform) is no longer bound or restrained to say and write what he now honestly and truthfully feels. Besides this, the Veteran has ample time to not only reflect and retrospect but introspect too on several issues which was impossible during service .The net result is generally well-intentioned responses, articles, papers, letters, essays and even books for the good of the organisation with little self-interest and mostly pure selflessness!

There is an imperative need to support and encourage all Veterans, especially senior ranking Generals with vast knowledge and experience to write and articulate their views on various subjects to benefit the serving fraternity and political hierarchy who are always short of time to review, reflect, retrospect, let alone introspect!

Second point of the debate is about the steady deterioration that has taken place in the quality of our military leadership especially at the apex and critical levels of Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals where it should be the  best possible. Some of the reasons for this fall in standards have been well articulated by General Shankar with the way forward.

Do you agree with General Shankar and his analysis? What are your views or analysis on this vital subject? How should the critical issues be resolved /addressed to improve the quality of our military leadership, especially at the apex level of Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals?

Responses from Veterans

Lt Gen Harbhajan Singh (Retd), ex-Signals Officer in Chief (1st Course JSW/NDA)

Generals do not drop from the sky or are parachuted in (like some political candidates for elections). Their character, sense of self discipline, camaraderie, dealing with seniors and juniors, leadership qualities start building up right from the time they join as cadets and training in NDA etc.

A critical phase in an officer’s life and career is the first unit/ship/squadron any officer joins. If he joins a professional outfit with a good commanding officer, he will never forget his grooming and qualities he imbibed as a young officer. However, quite a few join units where drinking, playing cards, seniors flouting laid down norms, such officers are not likely to become good senior officers.

So, any debate on generals must start from the time when they were cadets. I would even go to the extent that the family background of generals who become prey to corruption etc. must also be examined. Regimental loyalties taken too far also result in undeserving officers becoming generals. Even some of our iconic Chiefs and Army Commanders are guilty of promoting and protecting undeserving regimental officers.

It is easy to say that officers’ seniority should be fixed mid-way or so in their careers. What criteria are we going to use and who are going to decide revised seniority! I bet such norms will be changed/revised to suit certain blue-eyed officers. A re-look could be taken on inter-se seniority when officers try for and go to DSSC. Here again, some officers are deployed in operational areas and will not have facilities to study for the entrance exam. It is not an easy matter to decide on re-fixation of seniority.

Lt Gen Ashok Joshi (Retd), ex-DGMT

Growth in professional and personal domains can only be achieved by well-directed effort by individuals. This is so in every profession. But what sets the Armed Forces apart is total inability of individuals or even nations to clearly foresee the nature of warfare that would prevail when the conflagration takes place.

The Great War was a very fine example of this phenomenon. WWII was a mere follow up – or part II after an interregnum of about 20 years. But since then, technology seems to have assumed more importance than at any other time in the past. The nation that always keeps ahead in this field will have a major advantage.

At the other end of the spectrum is the capacity to field motivated manpower-boots on ground, and that is something that has never changed, and is unlikely to change ever. ‘Computer-mouse-warriors’ who operate drones can do a lot but not everything. Good generalship, I suppose, will call for the creation of the winning combination.

Maj Gen Anil Sengar (Retd), ex-GOC Inf Div, ADG MF & Author

First, it is a valid question to ask, what did he do when he was in service? There lies the answer to the problem of Generalship in our army. The biggest asset of a General is his moral courage and conviction to stand up for what is right in the interest of the organization and its people.

It is understood that there are various kinds of pressures and constraints when one is in service. But isn’t Generalship all about standing up for something and dealing with constraints? What is at stake as a Lt General? Nothing! It is simply that our system spawns’ people who simply cannot speak up.

Having said that, if these Generals did not have the courage to speak up then and give tough feedback, there is no harm in hearing their views to get a glimpse into what they think ails the army. Before someone asks the same question about me, let me say upfront, right from a young Captain to a General, I have never shied from thumping the table to people as high as the Chief, Defense Secretary and the Defense Minister.

Then I have written about the same things post retirement in my book ‘Four Decades in Olive Green – Pride Passion and Perspectives.’ The Chapter two is titled ‘What Ails the Indian Army.’ It includes issues that I have flagged during my service and possibly paid for it, which I did not care a damn about. Thus, it is fair to ask this question, “What did he do when he was in service?”

Generalship is about preparing the army for the future, while keeping it relevant for the present. It is about making change before changes are forced by events, it is about managing change. It is about learning to deal with polity and bureaucracy and the intangibles. The Generalship has failed the Indian Army on both counts!

Why is that the Indian Army has its equipment most of which is in obsolescent stage, has huge ammunition deficiency, modernization and quality issues are suffering for years, officer’s shortage, hundreds of officers going to the court on AFSPA etc.? The list is endless, and the time frame is timeless! The Air Force has not come down to 31 odd squadrons over night!

In my perspective, the army has spawned a system that will only throw up Generals who will add no value to the organization. It starts with the mandalised promotion policy, where an infantry officer on a scale of 6 on 10 gets promoted and others who are 8 on 10 in other arms do not.

The ACR is the only basis of promotion, whereas when an officer is posted as a DA, additional input by his last two or three IOs on aspects not covered by the ACR are sought for and become the basis for selection of DAs. Why should that not happen for officers who are going to lead this army and become army commanders and chiefs?

Today over 80 percent of the senior officers above the rank of Colonels are being graded outstanding. ACR is not a function of competence, it is primarily a function of relationship with your boss and this overrides competence. If you see the ACRS of senior officers hauled up for moral turpitude, they would have been graded outstanding 9 in their ACR in last 25 years by their IOs, ROs, ad SROs. That speaks loudly on the utility of the ACR as a document.

Officers who do not qualify for staff college despite three chances and all organizational support, get nominated for Higher Command and NDC. I have seen Commanding Officers and Brigade Commanders who in my perspective should have been hauled up for poor professionalism but went on to attend Higher Command and NDC courses. An incompetent man is happy surrounded himself by and promoting incompetent people.

I have on many occasions heard the Army Commanders say, “You guys think that the Army Commander is a big man. No, he is just another man like you.”  When large number of officers went to the court on AFSPA, I mentioned to an Army Commander, he said, “It has not happened in my command.” I said, “As army commander it should concern you as it is a serious matter, and you need to be counted, even if it has not happened in your command.”

He then said, “Do you know who gives me calls?” and he named a minister. Then he said, “Do you know who is visiting me? The MoS for Defence is visiting me.” Well, if an Army Commander is excited or surprised that the MoS for Defence is visiting him or some politician is giving him a call, then he clearly has no comprehension of what his position entails.

A Colonel can become a Lt Gen in eight-nine years. How does the organization train or evolve him intellectually to grow from a Colonel to a Corps Commander or Army Commander? Most Generals are comfortable operating at the tactical levels while the need is to comprehend and operate at the strategic level. Does this not spell the doom for the army?

An army commander thinks he is nobody! When I raised a serious issue with a serving Vice Chief, when I was in service too, he said, “I hope someone does something about it.” I told him, “Sir, you the Vice Chief also thinks someone else will do something about it. Beyond you, who is that somebody?”

The solution lies in house. But we do not have enough people with caliber and the character to stand up and be counted. The malaise is known, and several studies have been done. I have written in clear terms what ails the Indian Army in my book, ‘Four decades in Olive Greens’.

The government by superseding/nominating chiefs have thrown the bait. Many will take it with far reaching effects. Neither of the superseded officers resigned, sending a message that we are prepared to be steam rolled. It has now become a practice.

We have seen how the army has suffered in last two years. While merit is the key, how is the government in better position to decide who is better of the five Army Commanders to be the chief, except pliability. If the people of India can elect their PM, why can’t the army elect its own chief through the collegiate system like the Colonel of the Regiment?

Surely, in a democratic system, this idea will never see the light of the day, but I believe the army will elect a Chief who it believes will do the nation and the army good.

As for fixing the seniority mid-way, it is a black hole. Even today, the Chiefs have not been fair in exercising their privileges in the promotion boards of Maj Generals. Re-fixing seniority midway is an exercise that will spawn crony parochialism weeding out those who are seen as threats in the race to higher ranks. No clear-cut answers but the need to start looking for answers is the need of the hour.

If there is one thing that will give better picture, it is to harness the spoken reputation of the officers in the promotion system. Mediocrity is the name of the game. Different kinds of parochialism kill meritocracy. It is unlikely that the army will change from within. By the time officer becomes a Lt General, he is hard boiled and neither has the energy or the interest to stand up for anything.

Rear Admiral Alan O'Leary

I am sure, that most Flag Officers are not tainted, but there is a sizeable fraction, who have brought into disrepute the Officer cadres. If these so called ‘gentlemen’ rose to the Apex grades, the harm that they would have done to the system would be phenomenal. I must quickly add that this is not something that is happening now, but has been going on, for years. Sadly, such types are hard to identify in their formative years. Furthermore, they get by as ‘smart Alecs’ who know how to play the system.

While we can brush under the carpet, some low key players, with the big ticket guys, the fact is that there is a sizeable percentage of senior Officers who keep their mouths shut, when they see clearly, what wrong doings are being perpetuated by those above them in the system.

This lot are actually as culpable, as they lack the moral fiber to correct something, in time and indeed prevent their seniors from further crimes. Today, as never before the services (despite all the hassles they are having with the bureaucrats, to get parity with the Group A) are well to do.

There is absolutely no justification for bribes, commissions and corruption, that needs to be dealt with firmly and I must say, be done across the board and not what is usually done by catching a ‘bakra’, to make it out that the establishment is acting, against wrong doers. Like a squid, the top guys get away, spreading a smoke screen. But the Fauji knows these guys and also know who the moral degenerates for the rest of their lives. But the moot question is, whether they are affected by these evaluations.

In my career, I came across a lot of middlemen both ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the service. These agencies have and continue to prosper in different ‘avatars’ I was told that the service needs them, to navigate through torturous channels of defence procurement. They also value add, to the understanding of complex technical matters and give a better all-round perspective.

This, any reasonable man will say is absolute, hogwash. Can a commission agent, ever give an all-round perspective? Would he not just focus on his brand and obfuscate the rest? Can anyone say with conviction, that these guys are wisdom personified and that the serving Officers need them? This is all a part of the game and a ‘diktat’ comes from the top, that no one, would like to counter, except at the peril of his career. I found a very few takers.

For some decades now, there is an increasing trend of senior Officers torpedoing the careers of their counterparts, who unfortunately come up against them, in the senior positions, where there are restricted avenues for promotion. Many of these degenerates use their juniors to be, “find outers” to provide them such information that, if leaked to the press or even the MoD, would hazard the chances of the obvious man for the job, getting his rightful promotion.

This is happening increasingly. The Army has a special Directorate, to look into such representations. I have reliably learnt that middlemen play a crucial role in this endeavour, as they have money power, which they can use to good effect. This notwithstanding, all the regulations that can be made, albeit with several loopholes.

Brig IS Gakhal, ex-Comdt SRC Ramgarh, ex-Cdr RR Sector

Generals and Generalship is critical to our times. Criticism is not easily digested in our Services; it is often taken personal and viewed with suspicion. In our uniformed service we have used the medium of cribbing to let off steam. Very few have voiced their concerns in open forums, simply because criticism is not taken constructively.

In this backdrop, Veterans who voice their concerns are trolled and slighted. The problem accentuates if the author is a General simply because the question asked is: “What did you do about it when you were serving, General?” Not realising that the General may have voiced his concerns or improved what was within his ambit.

For any organisation to improve and flourish change is essential. To affect change, inputs from every rug of the organisation is a must. If feedback is ignored, then change may not be realistic or acceptable to the environment. Managing change is most critical; therefore, feedback is equally critical, the source from where it comes is not material. What is material is the quality of the feedback.

It is important that Veterans write in with their comments and suggestions. The serving fraternity are constrained in the feedback and suggestions, not so the Veteran. A Veteran has seen it all and done it all; it’s now time to give back to the organisation that nurtured a Veteran.

The Veterans without hesitation must voice their concerns, but without malice or vested interests. Let not past baggage be a conduit for suggestions and concerns. This is only cautionary as Veterans by and large carry little malice. Keep writing in do does not stop Generals and et al!

Cdr Ravindra Pathak, ESM Activist

Whilst what the General says it true and we need to express our views as a Veteran to give the serving a new vision or a different perspective. It is unfortunate but true that often the serving open up to the Veterans more than to the serving for obvious reasons. The argument why opens up now and what did you do in service is the most illogical. We have no knowledge of what one did or did not do in the service. Are we sure the author did not express his views within the limitations imposed by the service?

The serving have introduced rank based privileges even in social clubs like special furniture and sofas reserved in special enclosures for serving VVIP at social functions etc. One must realize that till the rank of Lt Col all are same in professional knowledge and there after your rise is based on date of commission and date of birth, initial seniority and then the place and men under whom you serve. Of course, the last bit includes extraneous factors beyond professional competency.

Col Parmesh K. ‘Royal’ Mehrishi, ex-Inf, Clinical Psychologist

Military leadership in training academies can be taught, but it is akin to an assembly line production of clones as the training is too straight jacketed. Exercising leadership on ground is a complex process, as it involves factors of upbringing, imagination, cognitive functions of the brain, composite recall memory, integrity, prevalent situation, caliber of subordinates, cultural factors and more.

Functional independence cannot be taught, it has to be exercised day in and day out. At the junior level, small teams with adequate fire power and resources need to be trained to operate in a battlefield bereft of electronic communication and orders from above. Initiative, dissent, and boldness need to be recognized and rewarded not only when a person gets martyred but at the planning and execution stage as well, even if an individual does not fit the mould of a successful officer.

Col NP Sharma, ex-Arty & APTC

Our service credo places country first, the men you command next and own ease and comfort last. But our ACR system has no way of ensuring this. An officer who keeps only his superior/s happy by hook or by crook has good chance of getting a good ACR vis-a- vis an officer who gives priority to his subordinates.

If we have 360-degree assessment in which an individual is assessed by the superior as well as subordinates, then he will automatically have to live in accordance with his higher self and the organisation as a whole will benefit. There will be no sycophancy and many adverse traits will vanish. In the corporate sector, this 360-degree assessment is in practice. I think Infosys is one of them? A similar idea was doing the rounds during Gen VK Singh’s time but then army prefers ‘status quo’.

Gp Capt Johnson Chacko, ex-Instr, DSSC, CDM, AFA, NDA

A leader leads a group of people. He needs to be aware of the situation that the group is in, ideate as to how to convert the situation in favour of the group using the skill sets available within the group. The focus is on the group for if there is no group then there is no need for a leader. Our Generals/Admiral and Air Marshals are leaders in their own right leading a large number of personnel. Their focus needs to be the personnel and what is good for them. Beyond a particular rank, when he is promoted from active involvement with his men, political correctness starts to take over.

Political correctness as defined by Gen McArthur is picking up a piece of shit by the clean end. That should be a no go for the military as we are not supposed to be involved with politics. At higher levels it is a battle between conscience and consequences. If one succumbs to consequences, he loses leadership. If he maintains conscience, then he endears to those whom he leads. Promotion of the required officers to higher ranks is based on ACRs.

The system that I used was self-assessment with moderation by the IO after consent by the ratee. It does wonders. Not a single ratee over assessed himself and in majority of the cases I had to moderate it upward. There needs to an assessment of sycophancy as an attribute.

Generalship needs to have personal power rather than positional power. Personal power is gained through professionalism or what you know rather than whom you know. Those who come into a position because of the latter cannot implement lasting solutions for the good of those whom they command. If they leave the position, the changes that they brought in also revert. There is a need to change the support system that promotes appointments based on factors other than professionalism.

The Way Forward

The debate on ‘Generals & Generalship’ was initiated after due review and reflection. The subject encapsulates issues concerning critical quality military leadership at senior, higher and apex levels, in the Army, Navy and Air Force. The purpose of the debate was mainly to ignite the minds of all Veterans, especially the Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals and encourage them to air/write their views on vital subjects concerning the military and nation.

The compiled and collective views of our learned, experienced and illuminated minds has enabled projection of their valid concerns and suggestions to the readers. The serving military and political hierarchy is in charge and will call the shots. It is hoped that they accept the views and suggestions of one and all without any bias or apprehension. The interest of the Armed Forces and nation must always take precedence and priority, always and every time!

(This debate was compiled by Mission Victory India Founder & Director Col. Vinay B Dalvi. He can be reached on Twitter: @vinaybaliram, Email ID: col.vinay.dalvi@gmail.com, colonelvinaydalvi@missionvictoryindia.com.Views expressed are the respondents own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)

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